Victory closer, divisions deepen in Syria opposition

BEIRUT Sun Aug 5, 2012 8:16pm IST

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BEIRUT Aug 5 (Reuters) - Three separate Syrian opposition groups have floated proposals for a transitional government in the past week, a sign that differences among the many factions opposing President Bashar al-Assad are deepening even as victory seems closer.

With fighting reaching Damascus and Aleppo in the past month, Western countries are increasingly anxious to see the disparate groups agree on a credible plan for a transitional government should Assad fall.

The head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), a long-established opposition umbrella group, said talks would be held within weeks to form a transitional government.

The next day the Free Syria Army, a loosely coordinated group of insurgents fighting Assad's forces, floated a separate proposal that called for the establishment of a higher defence council bringing together military and civilian figures.

And the day after that, a group of exiled Syrian activists who left the SNC announced a new opposition alliance that also aimed to form a transitional government.

It is neither news nor a surprise that Syria's opposition is divided. Assad's opponents include Islamists and secularists, Kurds and Arabs, Sunni Muslims and members of religious minorities, defected army officers and the political activists they once hunted, exiles abroad and fighters on the ground.

The Istanbul-based SNC in particular has come under fire for being out of touch with the fighting in Syria itself. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, nominal head of the Free Syria Army, said it was made up of opportunists who want "to ride over our revolution and trade with the blood of our martyrs".

Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge, broke away from the SNC to launch the "Council for the Syrian Revolution".

"I don't differ with the Syrian National Council over their vision, but over their tactics. I'm different in that I'm working on the ground, and they're just theorising," he told Reuters.

Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC's former leader, said news of the SNC's plans to form a transitional government had created "a competitive dynamic" among those who want a role.

"I think we will be able to overcome this competition ... I think Haitham's move was a wrong one and it must be fixed with minimum fuss and without giving it importance," he told Reuters.

Most alarming for the West, the rebels fighting inside Syria include al Qaeda-style Islamist fighters with a strong sectarian, Sunni Muslim agenda. Secularist opposition figures and members of religious minorities are also worried.

"Several opposition groups have adopted an increasingly fundamentalist discourse and demeanour, a trajectory that mirrors the conflict's gradually deadlier and more confessional turn (and) popular loss of faith in the West," the International Crisis Group said in a report.

Western countries fear that sectarian killings could make it difficult to halt the fighting even if Assad falls, and could unleash the sort of mass slaughter that erupted in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Among other issues dividing the opposition is the role of senior defectors like Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, a former member of Assad's inner circle who fled Syria and has since been hosted by anti-Assad governments in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Many opposition activists say Tlas is tainted by his long service under Assad and worry that he will be foisted on them as a future leader. Ghalioun said he sees a military role for Tlas and other defecting officers to retake control of the army and re-establish security in the country. Maleh was dismissive.

"I do not think that Manaf Tlas has a role in the coming time as a leader. He should have announced his defection when he left Syria and said 'I'm joining the Free Syrian Army and I will fight alongside them,'" Maleh said.

However, some experts say the opposition's fractiousness has a positive side, showing pluralism emerging after decades of repression under the Assad family's Baathist rule.

"This is a political society emerging after almost nothing. So the diversity is normal and healthy," said Nadim Shehadi, Middle East expert at London's Chatham House think tank.

"This argument about the incoherence of the opposition and the fact the opposition doesn't constitute an alternative to the regime was used before as an excuse to do nothing," he said.

"We have to help the opposition to come up with a transition plan and with an alternative."

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